Earlier this year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) settled a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) case with KT Corporation, the largest telecommunications operator in South Korea. The facts of the case, as described in the settlement documents, are cinematically scandalous: From at least 2009 through 2017, high level executives at KT maintained enormous slush funds in off-the-books accounts and physical stashes of cash, from which they made illegal political contributions and paid off government officials in both Korea and Vietnam. In their home country, they frequently used these slush funds to pay for substantial unreported gifts, entertainment, and campaign donations to members of the Korean National Assembly who were serving on committees that addressed issues of public policy directly related to KT’s business. Furthermore, after the South Korean press reported on the slush fund allegations back in 2013—reporting that led to a Korean criminal prosecution of KT’s president for embezzlement—the company simply shifted its tactics for filling its slush funds: Rather than siphoning off inflated executive bonuses, KT had its Corporate Relations (CR) Group purchase gift cards, which were then converted into cash to replenish the slush funds. In genuine “cloak and dagger” style, a member of the CR Group would meet the corrupt gift card vendor in the parking lot behind the KT building and receive a paper bag containing a large envelope of cash.
In a magnificent understatement, the Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Enforcement Unit noted that KT “failed to implement sufficient internal accounting controls with respect to key aspects of its business operations,” and that in the future, the company’s leaders should “be sure to devote appropriate attention to meeting their obligations under the FCPA.” But this was not simply a case of a company failing to keep its financial records up to date. Rather, there was a complete and total collapse of any semblance of a culture of compliance at KT. The fact that executives at the highest levels of this corporation, including the president and the CR Group, were directly responsible for these bribery schemes indicates that the culture of this corporation was corrupt, thorough-and-through; bribery was an indispensable component of its business model, and continued even after the company’s president was prosecuted. Yet because KT cooperated with the SEC’s investigation, the SEC only required KT to pay a paltry $6.3 million in combined disgorgement and civil penalties; the SEC also put the company on a two-year probation, during which KT must update the SEC every six months on its compliance measures, though it is unclear what, if anything, will happen if KT somehow mishandles the recommended compliance improvements.
This outcome is unacceptable. If the U.S. government is serious about its intention to deter future misconduct, it must ensure that civil penalties for FCPA violations cannot simply be seen as an “acceptable cost of doing business.” Over the past few years, SEC and DOJ leadership have repeatedly emphasized the importance of anticorruption enforcement and have suggested a desire to reverse the trend of steadily declining FCPA enforcement actions. If deterrence of corrupt corporate conduct is truly a priority for the SEC and the DOJ, then now would be a good time to start substantially ramping up FCPA investigations and enforcement actions, especially in cases of companies like KT that have exhibited the incorrigible culture of brazen corruption.
There are two substantial objections to the call to ramp up FCPA enforcement actions against foreign companies and dramatically stiffen penalties for violations, but on closer inspection neither is compelling. Continue reading